Mon | Jul 13, 2020

Dead end for cemeteries - Ja has quarter of burial space needed under NEPA standards

Published:Sunday | April 21, 2019 | 12:00 AMCarlene Davis - Gleaner Writer
Leonard Francis, director of the Spatial Planning Division at the National Environment and Planning Agency, expresses concern during a Sunday Gleaner interview on Jamaica’s burial space inventory.
Leonard Francis, director of the Spatial Planning Division at the National Environment and Planning Agency, expresses concern during a Sunday Gleaner interview on Jamaica's burial space inventory at NEPA's head office in Kingston on Thursday, April 18.
(From left) Leighton Edwards, Arlene Reid, Leon Edwards and Sheniese Miller, the three siblings and daughter-in-law, respectively, look on in bewilderment on the grounds of the May Pen Cemetery in St Andrew. The mother of the three was exhumed from a plot at their home in Westphalia on February 15. Later that day, the body was reportedly relocated to the May Pen Cemetery without the knowledge of the family.

Jamaica has only a quarter of the minimum designated land space it should have for burying the dead, sparking concern among environmental and planning officials that more families should cremate their relatives or find other alternatives to memorialise them.

The country has 712.6 acres of dedicated burial space available, which represents 26 per cent of the 2,700 acres of land bank that should exist, according to benchmark standards outlined in the National Environment and Planning Agency’s (NEPA) Development and Investment Manual. That development bible dictates that there should be 100 acres of cemetery space per 100,000 residents.

Every parish is running a major deficit, with St Elizabeth (9.3 per cent), St James (10.3 per cent), West-moreland (12.7 per cent) and Clarendon (14.4 per cent) having the worst four ratios in terms of the differential between existing land capacity and the acreage needed to contain their dead at the 2019 NEPA benchmarks.

St Thomas (31.2 per cent), Portland (28.7 per cent) and St Catherine (26.7 per cent) have the highest ratios of capacity to bury their dead, but are all woefully inadequate.

“So, for example, in Kingston and St Andrew, we have an existing acreage of 162.3, but the projected need for 2030 would be 870.2 acres, so you can see that we basically have a deficit of about 700 acres,” Leonard Francis, director of the Spatial Planning Division at NEPA, shared with The Sunday Gleaner.

“It actually remains the same right throughout the island for every parish, so for every single parish, there’s a deficit.”

With an estimated 427 recognised cemeteries across Jamaica, 68 per cent are running out of space, and the majority have had to close permanently.

That’s why NEPA officials are urging Jamaicans to give greater consideration to alternative postlife memorials, such as cremation, tier burials, or even digital cemeteries.

NEPA said that surveys it has conducted show that families prefer private cemeteries to public ones because of the latter’s history of neglect and vandalism.

Most applications for expansions have come from private cemeteries.

“From 2004 to 2013, we had 24 such applications for funeral homes and cemeteries. Since 2014, we have had 32 applications, which represent an increase of 33 per cent. ... Between 2014 and present, around five applications have been approved,” said Francis.

The funeral industry has long complained that approvals for expansion have been denied or delayed on grounds that do not involve contamination of the water table, or other public-health concerns. But Francis insists that multiple factors have to be taken into consideration before approvals are granted, including clamour that burial places hurt real estate value.

“You have to understand that cemeteries and funeral homes are very sensitive from a cultural and social perspective. That is the key thing; people just don’t like cemeteries beside them ... . I don’t know if it’s the duppy phenomena, so what we normally do is, when we assess the development, we look at it from an environmental perspective, from a land-use perspective, so they are normally placed in areas that are zoned for such purpose or on lands that can accommodate them,” the NEPA director told The Sunday Gleaner.

Francis said there is hardly any land that is zone for cemeteries, but what normally happens is that they try to expand existing cemeteries, or if somebody comes with a proposal, they do the investigations and zone the property for that purpose.

“The zoning process also involves consultations with persons, and if in the consultative process persons don’t want it there, we’re not going to be forcing it,” he said.

Francis assured that environmental impact assessments are done before the expansion of cemeteries are approved, as well as for prospective burial grounds that municipal authorities are seeking to develop.

Francis said that he is aware of NEPA even receiving two proposals for burial at sea.

“A lot of people don’t realise that a lot of Jamaicans want to come home and to be buried ... so if we don’t treat it seriously, and look on the various approaches we’re going to have issues, so we’re going to have to find one of those solutions, but we know we cannot continue to expand and use up the valuable land resources that we have, we cannot,” said Francis.